Listening for the clicks

I’m spending my free time these days looking for jobs in France.

Originally, I reached this decision reluctantly, wishing with all my heart that Korea were closer to home so that I could be a bit more connected to my family and visit more regularly – to enjoy my life abroad as an ESL teacher while still being a proper member of my family. I’d stay in Korea forever if I could, I sighed wistfully. But it wasn’t worth the constant feeling of guilt and regret that I’m missing out on so much at home. From big occasions like birthdays, births, deaths, and marriages, to exciting things like my sister and her boyfriend buying their first house (which I won’t get to see for a long time to come), to seemingly trivial little events like lazy Saturday BBQs, the local Blues club, or just having a drink and watching gameshows at my parents’ house at the weekend… I wouldn’t exactly call it homesickness, because I truly have no desire to live in NI. It’s more of a growing, nagging feeling that I’ve turned my back on people I love, and that while I would be no good to them back at home, unemployed and miserable and restless, there are countries much closer than one that requires over a full day of travel and half a month’s salary to get back from.

Alors, bonjour la France! I wasn’t at all enthusiastic about this when I first made my decision a few weeks ago, but I felt as if I had to do it, or live with overwhelming guilt for the rest of my life. A friend advised me: Do your research, make inquiries, weigh up your options. And a few months from now, you’ll know whether it’s right, or whether you just can’t bear to leave Korea. 

She was right. It’s been like this for years, now: things happen suddenly and unexpectedly to confirm which road I should take. Like being made redundant at the same time as meeting someone who nudged me into following my dream of travelling the world. Click. Like being offered luxurious house-sitting jobs that coincided exactly with where I wanted to be, when I had nowhere else to live. Click. Like being offered the perfect job in Korea approximately a day after considering that teaching in Asia might be an option for me. Click.

You’ve just got to train yourself to be still and listen for the clicks. Don’t get into a fluster and panic about what to do next, or whether this is the right move. Take a tentative step, and listen for the clicks. And of course I could have refused to take the risk involved with becoming a nomad. I could have turned down those housesitting jobs. I could have decided that moving to the other side of the world to do a job in which I had zero experience was just too insane. But listening for the clicks only makes a difference if you act when you hear them.

So, what clicks am I hearing at the moment? Mostly, I think I’m becoming tired of Korea. This is partly because of my generally restless spirit. I don’t like settling down in one place for very long. I like new places, and new challenges, and new surroundings. I’m not sick of my life here, but I’m ready to start winding it down. Little things I’d previously ignored or let go are starting to grate on my nerves, and I’ve said from the start that if I ever became one of those Complainers, it would be time for me to leave. I’m not one of them, and I hope I don’t become one, but I’m less likely to start spontaneously singing the praises of all things Korean than I was several months ago.

For the most part, I do still love my life here. I’m still having fun, and still loving my job, and still enjoying exploring. But I’m becoming less easy-going and less tolerant of some of the differences that cause so many clashes between foreigners and Koreans. Tiny things, sometimes, that don’t seem like a big deal at all when you’re not putting up with them every day. It frustrates me, for example, to have to justify my clothing on an almost daily basis. All winter, every day, people asked me “Aren’t you cold?”. Every day. Towards the end, I found it more and more difficult to smile and shake my head, and more and more tempting to yell “Why can’t you assume that if I’m wearing a t-shirt, then no, I am not cold?!!! If I’m cold, I will have the sense to put on a sweater, OK?!! Please stop asking me the same thing over and over again!!!!”. Now it’s summer, and I still get comments about my clothes. My sleeves are too short, my top shows too much cleavage, and why can’t I wear my hair down like I did in the winter? So much prettier!

And speaking of hair, I am immensely angry on behalf of Terri, who cut her hair short the other week, as it was becoming difficult (and expensive) for her to care for her (black African) hair in a country where no hair stylists have any experience of dealing with such a hair type. She looks beautiful, and I’m slightly envious of how easy it will be for her in the summer humidity. But a woman with short hair is unheard of in Korea. That’s fair enough – but what is not at all fair is how people feel that they have the right to laugh openly at her, to point and stare, to ask “oh, are you a boy?!”, and to generally make her feel unattractive and unfeminine. None of our colleagues complimented her. Instead, they either laughed or looked horrified, with comments like “I suppose it will grow back”, or “Why did you do that? It’s too short.”. She literally cannot step outside without people judging her or laughing at her. That is just plain nasty. It’s as if, because we look different from Koreans, they see us as less human, somehow. We don’t have feelings. We are creatures in a zoo, to be pointed at and stared at and laughed at. I once had a colleague tell me she’d looked through my old Facebook pictures and found some of me aged 18, at my school formal. I was slim then, and wearing an elegant dress. And my colleague said “You were so skinny! You were so beautiful! But look at you now… what happened to you?!”. I laughed it off, but I was deeply hurt.

Indeed, Korea’s general attitude towards foreigners does verge on racism from time to time, and while I have spent a lot of time defending it with arguments such as “They just don’t see a lot of foreigners” or “It’s ignorance, not hatred”, sometimes it becomes too much. I have left out some of the uglier stories concerning my encounters with Koreans, due to my usual desire to focus on the positive. And most of the time, my experiences are positive – I just want to emphasize that! But there have been hurtful, annoying, and even frightening incidents of racism, too, some of which I’ve mentioned… like the restaurant who made us feel like dirt because we weren’t Korean, or the crazy bus driver who went psycho on us and tried to drive off with our friend.

I’ve been attacked by a drunk girl in the street, who screamed “You are in Korea, speak Korean!” and left bruises on my arm from pulling at me so hard.

I’ve been pushed back with batons and sworn at by hateful police officers who, when we asked what we’d done wrong or why they were angry, just hit out at us some more. (“You did nothing wrong,” said some sad, embarrassed-looking Korean friends. “This is the corrupt Korean police force. They do what they want, with no explanation.”)

I’ve been openly insulted right to my face, by colleagues who assume that I don’t understand enough Korean to know what they’re saying about me.

I’ve been told to shut up, and sworn at, by taxi drivers who didn’t like that I was chatting quietly to my friends in English – one put his hands over his ears and yelled in Korean that our conversation wasn’t at all interesting to him because he couldn’t understand it. Another turned the radio up so loud that passers-by looked to see what was happening, and we couldn’t have heard each other even if we shouted.

And even right now, today, I am being given the cold shoulder by my boss for not going to the top of that damn mountain on Saturday.

So many clicks, and so many of them all click-click-clicking over the past few weeks. Yes, it is almost time to wrap up this chapter. Korea has been a wonderful, life-changing, mostly positive experience, and hopefully it will continue to be just as incredible until my contract ends in February. I have friends here, and a wonderful job, and so many more places to explore and things to do. To anyone considering doing as I have done, I’d encourage them with great enthusiasm. It’s an amazing country, with a population of mostly warm, kind, friendly people.

But I’ve heard the clicks, and I know now that this was just one more chapter in my story. I still don’t know if France will be the next one, but I’ve started taking steps, contacting friends in France, re-learning French, and searching for jobs. I don’t yet know what will happen next, but I’m starting to get excited about finding out…


6 thoughts on “Listening for the clicks

  1. Terry says:

    Oh, my friend- I’m definitely hearing the clicks! It’s been an incredible chapter, but one that’s fast reaching its conclusion.
    You’re right about taking tentative steps and then being still. Panicking just adds to the clutter. I look forward to seeing how things pan out for you next year and hope that our paths cross again in future. You are a gem! <3

  2. I’m so sorry to hear this, but I agree: time to move on.
    Kept thinking of Hamlet’s ‘slings and arrows’..they do add up, don’t they? I’m glad you won’t be leaving until February, though; I would love to meet you before you leave!

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